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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of a Dining Room Table

I once read a social media thread about the use of tablecloths in early years settings... one educator having seen them being used on pinterest in increasing numbers and was wondering whether it was a thing... and wondering whether she was missing out on something. This both excites and scares me... in part it shows how trends impact the way we teach, but also, thankfully it shows that social media can also be a place of reflection and finding out and not just copy and paste.

I think it lead to some interesting dialogue.. as the group was a Reggio Emilia inspired group it is from this standpoint that the discussion went.

Some said they personally used tablecloths to hide ugly tables, others said they used them to give their setting more homely feeling... and there was a comment about the preschools in Reggio Emilia itself using tablecloths and personal napkins at the lunch table every day... in the sense of honouring the child... although the writer chose the words dignified and civilised as a way of describing the reasons...

I am all for honouring the child... but does a tablecloth really do that? And is a table without a tablecloth uncivilised?

I looked at the history of tablecloths to find out where they come from, and also the history of the napkin... and saw that they have changed over time, but on the whole that they have been connected with showing off wealth and status.

I also looked into sustainability... which is better for the planet... and really there is not a big difference between having and not having them, if the napkins are being cleaned max once a week - but if you are adding on the tablecloth impact in comparison to wiping a table clean, then yes that is going to have a larger impact... both with the whole making and transporting of the cloth as well as maintaining its cleanliness.

I also looked at it from a hygiene point of view... and within many preschools it is simply policy that paper towels are used rather than real towels or napkins. Here in Sweden we have a roll of paper at the table - as do most homes... I would also like to point out that compared to my British home where we use a roll of paper towels too - the paper is thinner, recycled and is divided into smaller pieces so that you do not have to take more than you need. My children comment every time we visit the UK on the size of the paper towels!! Covid has shown the need for being aware of hygiene and ensuring the spread of viruses (and bacteria) are minimised as much as possible. Personal napkins with preschoolers does run the risk of not being as personal as they need to be.

I also googled fine dining around the world, and also Michelin restaurants to see what images would pop up... and many of the photos were of tables without table cloths. I was interested in the idea of us needing to put tablecloths on a table to give the children value, status or to honour them in some way... and yet these restaurants seem to honour the food and their patrons without the need of tablecloths...

For me it is not about the fact there is a tablecloth or not, but about the quality of the food and also the quality of the interactions with the people who work there, as well as the feel of the place... table-cloths are not a prerequisite for me to get positive vibes when eating at a restaurant..

In the preschool it would be about the quality of the interactions with the children's peers and also the educators. I also think it would be the ergonomics of the table and tableware to allow the children to feel empowered during their meal.

I also checked out a Swedish article that examined meal times in the preschool setting - exploring mealtimes in families over time and in various cultures - it states that mealtimes have become a measuring stick of civilised behaviour. That table etiquette was a way of seeing how well raised people were/are - and that you came form a good family (historically).

It is a time for talking together, and sharing values... research had shown that different cultures did this differently... in some children were valued more equally, in others the parents talk at the children - these family meals will influence how we eat at preschool.

That mealtimes are a part of the social interaction order... that it is a complex social situation that happens on a daily basis... who leads the conversation, who gets the biggest portion, or the most of a certain most desirable food etc... there can be a lot happening at a meal.

So mealtimes can be seen as a social arena... what kind of arena do we want to set up? How do we want the children to interact with each other. What sort of feeling do we want to create at the table... how does the setting of the table impact that...? tablecloths, flowers, having food served, taking their own food at the table or buffet style... having teachers sitting with them or not... all are conscious decisions that we make... and I feel we should always be prepared to change them depending on the need of individuals in the group and also how the group interacts with each other... and for this to be constantly re-assessed and new ways tried.

As a child I remember how eating meals was very much part of my social training - both at school and at home... we were expected to behave in certain ways... expected to hold knife and fork in certain ways, to talk quietly, not with our mouths full, how to eat the food etc etc (both my sister and I made the decision to dislike peas because of the demand to eat with our forks "correctly" ie not allowed to shovel them in - it was just too much hassle to chase those peas around the plate... much easier not to like them)

I have an extremely vivid memory from my first school lunch/dinner - so I must have been 4 years old... where I spat out my dessert and got promptly told off. As a four year old (with a huge need to do the right thing) I had complete trust in the adults around me that they would give me food that I liked, and if it was new food I was given a small amount to try... this was not the system of the school... a portion of mandarin oranges was put in my bowl and I trustingly put one in my mouth and it exited pronto.

I suffered a lot at school mealtimes due to not being able to eat fruit... I would eat well... all my vegetables etc, just not fruit, which I realise is part of my autism and sensory processing - I love the taste but the feeling is just all wrong. and I mean all wrong.

This has of course given me a greater sensitivity for young children as they learn to process foods - I will always encourage to try... but I will never force.

For me this is more important than a tablecloth or cloth napkins. My interaction with the child.

But I think we need to take a closer look at the local way of eating - are we going to choose how they do it in Reggio Emilia with tablecloths and cloth napkins or are we going respect how the local culture eats meals.

Like my post about the dining room in Iceland recently shared, where the educators at the preschool (A∂althing ) wanted to create a dining room that empowered the children. They visited various restaurants to see how a dining experience was being created for adults and wanted to create this same respect for children. They chose a hotel dining room where the tables were different sizes and heights as well as the chairs... they also made sure there were more spaces to sit at than children... so that when the last child entered the room there was still a selection of spaces to choose from. Are children being honoured in this way... or is it just a table-cloth rather than choice? I see many settings have fixed places for the children to sit at during lunch time, and zero opportunity for the children to choose.

We need to think about how are we creating respectful interactions at the table... how are we empowering the children - do they take their own food at a buffet, or do they pass bowls around that the table... or is there a good reason for the teachers serving the children (I have to say when we have an epidemic of worms going round, we serve the food to make sure that we minimise contamination - and now during peak outbursts of covid we also serve the food to reduce viruses etc spreading). Questions about who is going to set the table, and how, as well as how the table is to be cleared and cleaned afterwards are all taken into consideration - how can the children be involved, do they need to be involved, what happens if they are and what happens if they are not. Also what adjustments do we need to make if we are involving the children so that they feel competent... - if the children are scraping their own plates is it feasible to expect 1-3 year olds to always get their food in the bucket... what kind of support do they need, or is it OK for them to make a mess... if making a mess is OK then what are we saying to the children when they are older... that they do not need to get it into the bucket - I see so many educators get frustrated with children that miss the bucket... yet so little scaffolding is actually given to children to master this skill, or understand the purpose of mastering it...

If we look around the world we will see that meals are consumed in many different ways in the home and in school... and most of those ways are respectful - but will not involve tablecloths and cloth napkins (I mean look at the boxes of Japanese food - the bento boxes... so many of them are absolutely beautiful - never have I seen food in the west presented like this on a daily basis, for adults or children). Some eat on the floor, some on low benches, some at tables, but not all. Not all homes and schools will have individual plates as communal eating is their preferred choice to socialise and connect and show respect.

In descriptions of the Atelier of Food in Reggio Emilia... the idea that having tablecloths gives value to the child because the table is set as we adults would set the table for (adult) guests - my question is then.. do we want the children to feel like guests or like family?... and I would also like to point out that if you should ever have a meal at my home there will never be a tablecloth on the table (except in my little house in the woods, but that is because the table has seen better days)... firstly I don't have one in my home in town, and secondly I would rather hope that my attention to making good food, and having interesting dialogues together is enough to make you feel special and valued.

Also there is this idea that what makes having guests over and also setting the table in a special way for Christmas or, birthdays or any other occasion, is that fact that we have gone that little extra to make it special for that specific occasion... if it is special everyday then how will we make it different when we want to make it special?... afterall we don't eat birthday cake everyday, or whatever you might choose that makes us feel special... would it still be special if it was a daily thing? I don't have the answer here, just asking...

Also when I was in Italy and visited a setting connected to Reggio Children I was intrigued by the way they ate lunch, because I had heard so much about the specialness of lunch and how children were valued.

From a Swedish perspective where lunch is about participation and empowerment I found I did not like how the children had zero control over what food ended up on their plate... they were not even consulted if they wanted a large or small portion and the food was served in shallow bowls so it was impossible for food not to touch each other (which I know from experience that this can be a real issue for many children). Yes, it was beautifully presented on tables with flowers in the middle. But the children sat at tables, while the adults stood around and served them, and the noise was awful - I could see multiple children struggling in this noisy environment with beautiful high ceilings that exasperated the situation.

The lunch was two courses. Not because this is a way to honour the child, as I have seen it been written about in various sources, but because this is the cultural culinary tradition of Italy. The carbohydrates and not served with the protein - for example, pasta first, meat and vegetables afterwards. For children coming from other countries this can be a very confusing way to eat food.

Personally I have worked in different ways... from sitting with the children and not sitting with the children, from buffet style to serving the children, to dishes at the table to serve and share... for large groups at a table to small tables... and there is not one way that I prefer over another... they all have value, they can be used and changed to meet the needs of the children. So it will be hard to pin me down to which is the best way to eat lunch... I won't know until I have worked with the children for a while.

I can also mess about with the usual routine just to get the children questioning why do we eat the way we do... like eating food in different ways such as drinking off a plate and eating from a cup... or sitting on the floor, or no chairs, or eating directly off the table... or using the chairs for a table... indoor picnics are usually rather popular also...

It is a way for the children to make informed decisions about why we eat the way we eat, not based on what is the correct way to sit at a table, but rooted in the multiplicity of sharing food the world round.

soup in mugs, pasta and carrots in the table, water on the plate. no chairs. Snack was everyone on the table sharing fruit .

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